Karla Ruelas: NIEP community organizer highlight

Get to know one of the eight National Immigrant Empowerment Project, or NIEP, community organizers that are advocating alongside members of their community and empowering the immigrant community to take the lead in creating long-lasting, positive changes in their cities.

Karla Ruelas from La Casa Hogar in partnership with Nuestra Casa, Yakima and Sunnyside, Washington

Why do you enjoy working with the immigrant and refugee community?

Upon arrival in this country, immigrants find many barriers, such as language and adaptation to name a few. Breaking these barriers is not easy, and without the support and help of organizations, such as Nuestra Casa, overcoming these barriers could be even more difficult. There are countless reasons why I love my job, but what I'm most passionate about my job is the fact that I have the opportunity to help the immigrant community to overcome these barriers by teaching them the English language and helping them to build self-confidence. Noticing the progress of my community is very satisfying and rewarding.

What inspired you to enter this field of work?

20 years ago, I came to this country with the hope of a better life. I left behind everything that belonged to me — childhood friends, school, family, etc. Upon arriving in this country, I realized that adapting and integrating to a foreign country is a very difficult task, I had to learn another language, adapt to a new culture and learn to handle other uncomfortable situations such as racism, among other things. The experiences that I have accumulated through these 20 years is what inspired me to do this work. I have learned to overcome many barriers and I know that I can help others to do the same.

In your opinion, what benefits does integration offer your community? What strategies have you found most impactful when promoting integration?

Integration offers representation for our immigrant community, but this can’t happen unless our community feels empowered and prepared. One of the most powerful experiences has been talking to immigrant communities and making them feel welcome in spaces they normally would not participate in. We also invite our receiving community to Nuestra Casa as part of our English program to conversate with students.

How have community organizing efforts impacted your community?

Currently with our project we are working with women from our community as promotoras to ensure the most accurate census count. We have been seeing their confidence as leaders rise and we are also noting an increase of involvement from them in other topics. For the last 2 years, the students of the citizenship class of Nuestra Casa have participated in the legislative day in Olympia with La Casa Hogar. On this day, students have the opportunity to meet and express their concerns to their representatives. Being able to participate in the legislative day is a unique experience for our community, not only because of knowing their representatives but also because they feel that their voice is heard. Another very important event organized by Nuestra Casa was the first Christmas celebration for people with special needs. Having a child with special needs is very difficult and even more for the immigrant community. Our community has to learn the medical terms, navigate the health system, and support and help the person with special needs. This can be quite frustrating and exhaustive. Talking to our community, we found out that there are many celebrations in the town during Christmas time. However, most of the families that have children with special needs did not attend any of these celebrations due to the different reactions or situations that their children might experience. For this reason, we decided to have a Christmas celebration, specially designed for immigrant families with children with special needs. The result of this was wonderful, both the children and the families enjoyed the event. In addition, the families had the opportunity to meet other families who faced similar situations and shared ideas with each other on how to react in different situations. Certainly, the families who attended felt welcome and we all learned something new that day.

In what ways have immigrants and refugees been involved in grassroots organizing?

Currently, our immigrant community is involved in two projects. One is to educate the community about the importance of responding to the census. We know the census can be controversial. Some people think that it may be risky to complete it, and some people choose not to complete it. For this reason, our promotoras from our community are committed to educating the immigrant community about all the benefits that we can obtain simply by completing the census. The most important thing is that they share their knowledge with the rest of the community and this allows us to empower one another.

How has the immigrant community been empowered in your community? Why is it beneficial for them to feel empowered?

We offer several workshops throughout the year with the purpose of educating and empowering our immigrant community. One is the English as a second language program. This program helps us to empower the community by breaking down language barriers. The second program is our preparation for citizenship. Many immigrants have had their green card for a long time and do not dare to take their citizenship exam for fear of failure. La Casa Hogar and Nuestra Casa help those immigrants to achieve their dream of becoming citizens of the United States and helping them prepare for the exam.

When our community feels empowered, wonderful things can happen like contributing more to this country in civic and economic matters, to name a few. If a person learns to speak English, they will no longer require the help of interpreters and will become more involved in the education of their children. When a person becomes a citizen of this country, they may have higher aspirations, they may start a new business and provide jobs. An empowered community can achieve many positive changes.

Can you briefly explain your project and what changes you are hoping to see over the next few years? What do you hope communities across the country will learn from the National Immigrant Empowerment Project or your project specifically?

La Casa Hogar and Nuestra Casa's mission is to empower our immigrant community through education. Our purpose is to continue offering different types of workshops and classes that help our community continue to be empowered. The result that we hope to see in the following years is to see an independent and empowered community. While our organizations will always be there to serve our people, we want to see that the people with the knowledge acquired do not depend on our help.

Through patience, effort and dedication organizations such as Nuestra Casa and La Casa Hogar can help the immigrant community achieve positive changes, and that when a community is empowered there are no barriers that are impossible to break.